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Wolford School to close after 105 years

May 17, 2019
Sue Sitter - Tribune Reporter , Pierce County Tribune

Wolford School Principal and Superintendent Larry Zavada busied himself with end-year activities this week, much as he's done in the past thirty-five school terms he's served there.

This year's end, his thirty-sixth at the rural school, was very different.

"It's like a bad dream," Zavada said quietly as he stopped at his desk in the front office.

Article Photos

Sue Sitter/PCT
Members of Wolford High's Class of 2019 pose in front of the school. From Left: Koby Marchus, Kyle Yoder and Zachary Morrow

Wolford's school board voted last week to close the school, with its student population of 46 kindergarten through 12th graders, permanently as of Friday. The school's class of 2019, all three of them, will graduate today.

"Right now, there are current staff positions that we could not fill, and future staffing concerns. And there are financial constraints, too, but we could have financially made it through 2019-20; it would have been extremely difficult to go another year."

Zavada said the financial constraints come from the school's dwindling student count.

Fact Box

Wolford students look to the future

As Wolford School staff and students ended their 2019 school year and marked the end of their school, they laughed at stories of good times shared in the past, and looked forward to their futures.

Class of 2019 member Zachary Morrow, who will travel next month to the national convention in Texas with other delegates from Wolford's FBLA chapter, said their trip will be a "last hoorah" for a school that won't exist anymore.

Morrow, who attended the school since kindergarten, has a younger sister who will finish the fourth grade this week. Morrow said his parents would likely send her to school in Cando or Rolette. Morrow said his father graduated from Wolford in 1986. "Grandpa graduated in 1951," he added.

"My dad and I talked about (the school closing)," Morrow said. "I plan on attending NDSCS for culinary arts (after graduation)," he noted.

Morrow said he would miss Wolford, and although he hopes to pursue a career in the restaurant industry, he hopes to live "within a two hour radius" of the Wolford area.

Classmate Kyle Yoder, who plans on studying computer science at NDSU, said he "kind of expected" the school would close. Kyle's mother graduated from Wolford in 1995, and he lives with his family in the town of Wolford. Kyle said his younger siblings would "probably go to Rugby" to finish their educations. "I'll miss my friends the most (when the school closes)," he said.

Yoder is Wolford High's salutatorian for 2019.

Valedictorian Koby Marchus told the Tribune he was saddened, but not shocked at Wolford's closure. "We all kind of knew it was going to close eventually for quite some time."

Marchus said his father and several family members are Wolford graduates.

"I'm going to go to NDSU for mechanical engineering," Marchus said.

In his career, Marchus noted, "I would probably stay in a city similar to Fargo, maybe a little bigger," but he'll always have an emotional connection to the Wolford area.

"I'll come (back) for visits, because my parents will still be here, but I don't think I'd ever move back," he said.

Wolford juniors said they were thinking of new options for their senior years.

"In the fall, I'll be taking online courses through the North Dakota Center for Distance Education, and then I'm headed off to college in January," said junior Kaitlin Slaubaugh. "Probably NDSU, to major in elementary education."

Kaitlin said, "I would prefer teaching in a small community. Being in a small school has given me some of the opportunities I wouldn't have had in a larger school."

Elijah Clay said, "I'm going to do the same thing Kaitlin's doing; I'm going to get my last credits through NDCDE, then go on to get a two year degree in welding."

What would he miss most? "I'll probably miss Mr. Zavada most, actually," he grinned, as Zavada walked by.

"You're trying to get out of school early, aren't you? Would you like all A's on your report card?" Zavada joked.

Cody Yoder said he'd miss joking with school staff most. "Since it's a small school, we know them," he said. "I'm going to go to Rolette Public School, because I'm in sports, and we co-op with them." Younger brother Tyrel will attend Rolette as well.

Kaden Hoffer said, "I'm going to move back to Bismarck, and go to school at South Central High School, and finish my school there. It was kind of nice here, and I was welcomed. It's a small town, but I've got friends back in Bismarck, so it will be nice to get back with them, too."

Amber Slaubaugh said she would continue her education at Rolette Public School. "What I will miss here is the choir, and Mr. Halvorson," she said.

Cole Martodam said, "I'll either go to Towner, Rugby or finish online. I was in trapshooting. What I'll miss most is probably the lunch. It's homemade," he smiled.

Zavada laughed. "Four plates a day! We don't charge his family per day; we weigh him before and after he eats!"

The students and staff burst into laughter.

Most of the children attending the school come from families extended throughout northern Pierce County; some last names appear in awards and bulletins over and over again. The Wolford families stayed devoted to their school even as difficulties mounted; some who live miles from town provided students rides to and from school when the district could no longer afford bus service.

However, committed families couldn't stop the decrease in student numbers, and Zavada said the board finally decided what they had known they would have to do for years.

"We fought for a long time, but now, there's just no way out of our situation." Zavada noted.

"Money follows students," he continued, describing problems receiving state aid to keep the school open. "So, you have twenty in a class (in larger schools), versus we have 46 kids in K-12, so, we're not even averaging four kids in a class."

Zavada described difficulties staffing the school without the generous benefits packages larger districts have to offer teaching applicants.

"It's like all of North Dakota there are fewer farms, and they're more spread out. There's a statewide teacher vacancy; there's a nationwide teacher vacancy, and when you come to a rural area" he trailed off, reaching for a tissue.

"And right now, we're so fortunate to have the people we have here, because no one gets health insurance, and teachers do not get social security."

No health insurance benefits?

"None," Zavada answered.

"And so, that complicates it, because I've had people call me, and they're interested, and when I mention our salary and benefits, and that we do not have health insurance, and when they hear we don't have health insurance, they're not interested."

"It's different than it was fifteen years ago," he added. "Fifteen years ago, I could hire a single guy, and he didn't care about health insurance, but with increasing costs, it's like, if you don't have health insurance, you have more than two strikes against you."

Zavada also said Wolford's location, which he said was deemed "geographically isolated" by the state, made funding difficult, and the tiny community currently has no housing available.

"We've been advertising since December, and we have no applicants for key positions, so last Tuesday, when the board made the decision," Zavada said, pausing to wipe his eyes.

"There were tears shed by everyone in the room."

"It was interesting I looked at some things here you know, you start reflecting. And so I've been here 36 years at the school, and I looked at our current students. I remember when 30 of them were born," Zavada continued. "I've taught eleven parents who currently have kids in school."

Zavada said some Wolford graduates went on to bigger things; he remembers teaching Nextar Media Group Vice President and General Manager Tammy Blumhagen in the 1980s.

"So, (his career in administration at Wolford) is not typical where you come into a town administrators are there maybe three to five years and away he or she goes."

"This has been, I've seen like the three senior boys, for thirteen years."

Zavada said the school, which was established in 1914, began with a wooden building, which was soon replaced by two brick structures, one in 1917 and a second in 1958.

He credited an active and dedicated group, the Wolford School Community Foundation, for filling gaps over recent years. The foundation supplied funds to purchase a new electric boiler about ten years ago, and in 2010, the group helped buy a new oven for the school kitchen.

The Wolford school board will meet to decide the buildings' fate Tuesday.

Zavada put his hands together as he collected his thoughts when asked what he'll miss most about Wolford School.

"My answers are One A, One B and One C," he answered after pausing. "One A will be the students, One B will be the employees that have been so faithful for so long, and One C will be the parents that have supported us and backed us."



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